Reviewed by Allyson Aritcheta
All Images by Zeeshan Safdar

In Việt Nam, a young woman rushes through a cemetery, dropping before a grave. Shaking, she burns incense, makes offerings, and performs rituals, waiting for a sign from her deceased grandmother. Alone, the woman confronts her complicated relationship with her loved one.

Weaving together poetry and drama, 49th Day pulls from creator athena kaitlin trinh’s grandparent’s experiences. The play—which starts as a series of individual spoken word pieces before being assembled into a 60-minute performance—fluidly transitions between generational narratives. The stories flip between the young woman experiencing her grandmother’s joy, fear, and displacement, and the young woman’s observations of growing up in Canada.

Fairy Tales and Origins

The young woman (played by athena kaitlin trinh), referred to as “mui mui” by her grandmother (played by Diana Tso), recounts stories that her grandmother, who she calls “po po”, told her as a child about Việt Nam. She speaks about how the stories remind her of the distance between her and po po; how their lives are so different, and how mui mui has grown up with bits of her heritage. The funeral rituals, which are supposed to be meaningful and bring feelings of closure, leave mui mui with an emptiness; the unrequited satisfaction of engaging with her culture while trying to honor po po leaves her bitter and frustrated. The young woman parallels her experiences with Vietnamese culture with that of a distant fantasy, a story with places that call to you—words that can be real and unreal.

Being raised in Canada, mui mui describes her experiences of trying to fit in, and the colliding perspectives of her family and Canadian culture. She speaks about being a model minority, the white saviour complex, and the arguments she would have with po po. The young woman confronts how her growing up in Canada has created a void in regard to what she should know about her and her grandmother’s culture. From a different view, po po is a Việt Nam war refugee who willingly uprooted herself from Vietnamese culture so that her family could survive. Both generations try to find a connection with their heritage but find silence instead. For mui mui, the lack of context brings silence; for po po, Việt Nam is just no longer the same.

The glaring holes in mui mui’s cultural knowledge, and the realization that po po won’t be there to help navigate this state of not knowing, creates a sadness in her, intertwined with the loss of her grandmother. She mourns not only the pieces of the po po she knew, but also the shards of her culture. A cultural bridge collapses when a generation departs, and mui mui feels the weight of this breakdown.

Through understanding these moments of longing for her roots, mui mui’s grief takes her on an exploration of the concept of “home”, forgetting and change, and the navigation of love.

Acts of Love

The intergenerational trauma brought from the Việt Nam war and the effects of Canadian culture have caused translations of love to be lost between mui mui and po po. The young woman often expresses her need to be told that she is loved, whereas her grandmother insists that she shows love through her daily actions. The woman comes to understand that her grandmother not only loved her through daily household tasks, but through passing down ways of surviving—ways that sometimes clashed with how mui mui wanted to live. In these retrospective memories of love, it is clear that both have unmet needs and are trying their best to show affection.

Interestingly, the generational miscommunication is smoothed over through song, dance, and food. The Moon Represents My Heart plays in the background as both women sing along in Mandarin, frolic through the cemetery, and eat po po’s cooking. Throughout the performance, mui mui and po po exchange words through English and Cantonese, but their moment of familial connection is expressed in Mandarin. Instead of experiencing a cultural divide, the two are united through what they share, leaving hope that there is still something to hang on to, even when someone leaves.

A living stream of consciousness, 49th Day processes the intergenerational gaps that long to be filled. As a Filipino who grew up in Toronto, a lot of questions I had about identity, including my interactions with my grandmothers, were brought up candidly in this play. I believe mui mui’s mourning of the fragments of culture and love that belonged to her sparks a conversation about what we can do in this moment while our loved ones are still alive. How will we remember them? What can we say to heal each other? What generational struggles are lost in the day-to-day? This play emphasizes the importance in the stories of family we hold dear, while also expressing that love and accountability can be a part of those tales.

See 49th Day at the Next Stage Theatre Festival, running until Jan. 19, 2020 at Factory Theatre.
On Jan. 17, 2020, a talkback will be offered after the performance.

Allyson Aritcheta is a Toronto-based freelance journalist and reviewer whose writing has appeared in This Magazine, Xtra, and From the Root. She has a graduate certificate in publishing from Centennial College and is an MI candidate at the University of Toronto. Allyson is a co-owner of creative studio Barkada Freelance. She can be found on twitter @allaritcheta.